Former Indian batsman Sanjay Manjrekar in a spicy column last week had argued that left-arm spinner Rangana Herath is not one of the greats of the game. He is spot on. Herath is not one of the greats of the game but an absolute legend!
Manjrekar, who played 37 Tests for India, opined that numbers simply is not the criterion for a player to be deemed ‘great’. Maybe, but a thorough analysis of Sri Lankan cricket would have given him a better idea rather than Sri Lanka’s recent tour of India where the left-arm spinner’s returns weren’t great. Most overseas spinners struggle in India. Muttiah Muralitharan averaged 45 while Shane Warne averaged 43 in India. Simply because someone hasn’t fared well in India, it doesn’t make him ordinary. For example, Virat Kohli has not scored a Test hundred in England, but that doesn’t make him an incomplete batsman.
More importantly, Herath has helped Sri Lanka win some crucial contests. While Tilan Samaraweera and Kumar Sangakkara scored hundreds and Dinesh Chandimal scored twin fifties on debut as Sri Lanka won their maiden Test match and to date the only one in South Africa, it was Rangana Herath who was named Man of the Match for his fantastic effort with the ball.
There was a wee bit of assistance for slow bowlers and Herath made an impact, taking nine wickets in the game. The Proteas learned their lessons and when Sri Lanka toured South Africa five years later, the hosts negated Herath, ensuring the tracks had little assistance for the spinners.
In all, Herath has won 11 Man of the Match awards and only three other Sri Lankans have fared better than him. While Muttiah Muralitharan was Man of the Match 19 times after 133 Tests, Kumar Sangakkara and Mahela Jayawardene won the award 16 and 13 times respectively in 134 and 149 Tests. Numerically, Herath has fared better as he has played only 89 Tests.
Not just Test matches, even in limited over games he has done some remarkable stuff but gets little credit. During Sri Lanka’s successful World T-20 campaign in Bangladesh in 2014, reluctantly the Sri Lankan selectors gave him a game in the crucial clash against New Zealand. It proved to be a masterstroke. Sri Lanka’s total of 119 was not going to test the strong Kiwi batting line-up. Herath bowled a superb spell to claim five wickets giving away just three runs. In that game, each delivery he bowled looked a wicket-taking one.
Herath is not a big spinner of the ball. Impeccable control is the hallmark of his bowling. But what enables him to take a lion share of wickets is that he possesses this sixth sense, the rare ability to figure out what the batsman is likely to do and then to counter accordingly.
In the closely fought first Test in Abu Dhabi last year, Sri Lanka were only able to set Pakistan a target of 136. With the chips obviously down, it was Herath who sprung life back to the team. Apparently, he told the dressing room that he sensed a kill. If they were able to dismiss Azhar Ali early, Pakistan would panic was his take. Suranga Lakmal obliged and Herath, who shared the new ball with pace spearhead went onto take six wickets as Sri Lanka completed a thrilling 21 run win.
Very few would have given Sri Lanka a chance as UAE had been a fortress for Pakistan as they had not lost a series there since the Gulf region became their adopted home in 2010.
Herath has been one of the Sri Lankan cricket’s most loyal servants and a thorough gent. In 2009 with Muttiah Muralitharan in the twilight of his career and Ajantha Mendis emerging as the new star, Herath had fallen off the radar. He wasn’t amongst the contracted players of SLC and had opted to play league cricket in England at Moddershall CC.
That was the year the World T-20 was held in England and the Sri Lankans were going all over the country from London to Nottingham to Birmingham before coming back to Lord’s for the finals. Herath was playing in north England but made it a point to attend all games that Sri Lanka played in the competition.
Kumar Sangakkara, a man who gives a high value for loyalty was Sri Lanka’s captain and he was taking note. A couple of weeks later, less than 48 hours before the first Test against Pakistan in Galle when Muralitharan was injured, the selectors asked the captain as to whom he wanted as the replacement. Without any hesitation, Sanga opted for Herath.
The selectors had pointed out that he was in England and it was near impossible to get to Galle on time for the Test. Sanga knew there was nothing impossible with Herath and he insisted on the spinner being brought back home. Herath went onto bowl Sri Lanka to a famous win having landed in Colombo less than 24 hours before the game and the rest is history.
Herath has been one never to overstay his welcome. He retired from ODIs after the 2015 ICC Cricket World Cup allowing the selectors to groom someone as it was evident that he will not be around for the next edition of the tournament. The same thing he did with T-20s having quit the shortest format of the game after the World T-20 in India in 2016.
Very generously he has stepped in and then stepped out as Sri Lanka’s stop-gap captain whenever there has been an injury. His unquestionable integrity has seen him earn the respect of teammates and those involved with the game. It is only appropriate that people treat him with some respect.